NEW YORK — In an age when checks can be deposited by smartphone and almost everyone retrieves cash from ATMs, the corner bank can seem a relic, with its paper deposit slips, marble countertops and human tellers behind glass partitions.
But some banking executives say the brick-and-mortar branch is still the best way to serve existing customers and snag new ones. They’re trying to rebuild the nation’s neighborhood banks into hip, airy spaces where customers sign up for loans without touching a piece of paper, sign in to ATMs with a tap of their smartphones and talk to off-site tellers by video.
Flashiness is only part of the reason for the makeovers. Mounting costs from legal fees and new regulations — vestiges of the financial crisis — have given the banks good reason to become more efficient. The new branches will help them replace expensive human workers with cheaper machines, a development that could eventually make the bank teller an endangered species.
Most redesigns aim to let customers complete simple transactions, such as deposits, for themselves. That frees bank employees for tasks that make money, such as persuading someone who wanders in to put money into a mutual fund or refinance a mortgage.
“Banks have been talking about ‘branch of the future’ for more than a decade,” says Bob Meara, a senior banking analyst at research and consulting firm Celent. “And almost nobody has been doing anything until the past couple years.”
Banks large and small are on board. In a Celent survey in June, 55 percent of banks said they were planning “significant changes” to their branches, up from 24 percent two years earlier.
At an investor conference in February, JPMorgan Chase executives touted their new branches as places where ATMs distribute exact change, machines count cash so tellers don’t have to and open floor plans evoke the atmosphere of an Apple store or boutique hotel, features that other banks are also embracing.